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Observer Editorial: Community beyond campus gates

| Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The last few weeks have highlighted the spirit of college-aged activism at Notre Dame, with students across campus actively engaging with issues that matter to them. This became no less true last week after the University detailed changes to Residential Life policies in an email to the student body Thursday morning. In response, at 2:30 p.m. the next day, a community took shape near the steps of the Main Building — where a group of over 1,000 students from all class years gathered to protest the administration’s new policies.

In the words of Student Affairs and Residential Life, the new policies were designed to cultivate a residential community “inclusive of all members.” Thus, in a sense, the student protesters gave the administration exactly what it wanted — a community “characterized by a collective sense of care and concern” — but they did so on their own terms. Unwilling to accept the administration’s top-down structure of community, which it interprets as a “set of universal practices across halls” and a clear distinction between on-campus and off-campus students, student protestors decided to define community for themselves — from the ground up.

The discrepancy between the administration’s new guidelines and Friday’s protest raises an important question: What makes a community?

According to the University’s new policies — the “Residential Community Enhancements” — proximity defines a community. Acting as a follow up to the six-semester on-campus requirement unveiled in the fall of 2017, the announcement outlines a number of changes to residential life policies as well as several financial incentives to keep students on campus all four years. But one announcement at the very bottom of the list, perhaps left intentionally buried, made arguably the loudest statement about the vision the administration has for our communities: “Students who choose to move off-campus will no longer enjoy all of the rights and privileges of residents” — including the ability to participate in hall sports and attend formals.

It would seem that to the University, our communities are merely the walls we live within. But as Friday’s crowd proudly waved hall flags in protest, many students begged to differ. Communities extend beyond geographic location — they transcend space and even time. The strength of Notre Dame residence hall communities is the reason students stay active in their dorms after moving off campus and why alumni stay in touch with their old halls decades after graduation. Why stand in the way of this?

The administration has been fairly consistent in their defense of the six-semester policy and the stipulations outlined in last week’s email — keeping students on campus longer, they say, will improve the undergraduate experience for all. In a Sept. 2017 Observer article, associate vice president for residential life Heather Rakoczy Russell said the six-semester requirement was designed to ensure students experience the “formation” dorm communities provide. Similarly, in Thursday’s email, vice president for Student Affairs Erin Hoffmann Harding and Rakoczy Russell underlined on-campus residential life as “central to undergraduate education.”

Yet even behind these arguments, the motivations behind Notre Dame’s ardent push for a stronger on-campus community remain vague at best. Dorm culture at Notre Dame appears to be as robust as ever — why introduce an array of new policies to reinforce an already-secure system?

Regardless of their reasons, the administration has maintained they sought input from students before introducing changes to residential life. In a Thursday Observer article, Hoffmann Harding said the University has been polling students on the topic “for the past year and a half.” To this end, Residential Life hosted walk-in office hours and met with residence hall staffs and several student organizations throughout the year. Still, campus-wide discussions about the policy have been few and far-between. We can only hope the input gathered by Residential Life was representative of the whole student body.

Admittedly, the majority of the ideas listed in the announcement came as no surprise to the campus community — stipends for on-campus seniors, fixed room costs for sophomores who commit to living on campus early and more flexible dining options were publicized as likely incentives early on. The only stipulations about which the administration gave no hints were those that limited off-campus students’ participation in on-campus life.

As expressed in Friday’s protest and a handful of letters to the editor, these restrictions came as a shock to the student body — but perhaps to none more than to the class of 2022. The limitations are set to come into effect in the fall of 2021, when current freshmen will finally be able to move off campus if they so choose. The class of 2022 was already the first to be affected by the six-semester policy; why apply new restrictions to their class retroactively?

The purpose of this editorial is not to ignore the administration’s commitment to improving residential life. Efforts to make on-campus living more comfortable and affordable are deeply appreciated by many students. Still, the University’s attempt to unify those on-campus through the exclusion of off-campus students is troublesome, and the outrage the new policies has sparked speaks to this. Let’s continue to show our students — all of our students — that the “Notre Dame family” reaches beyond our campus gates.

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